Now that senior politicians have reached the ‘how could you?’ stage in addressing Donald Trump’s supporters, it seems like a good moment to turn the question around. Why would anyone vote for Donald Trump? And more particularly, given his particular brand of unabashed sexism and empathy-free haranguing of women, why would any woman vote for the potential President Trump?
2016 has been a year of the unexpected where politics is concerned, so it’s important to consider every eventuality. The eventuality of a Trump presidency is still possible. No-one expected the Trump nomination would happen, but here we are. And we are here because Republican women did vote for Trump – in April 44% of Republican women supported him – higher than female support for other Republican candidates at that stage. In spite of frequently running into ‘woman problems’ – over issues as wide-ranging as insulting female journalists, proposing punishment for abortion, discussing ‘hotness’ of female family members – Trump has his nomination. He faces Hillary Clinton, the first female nominee in American history – about whom he has said just about everything. Most recently he has cast her as the devil. But even as his poll ratings have tanked over the last week, it would be foolish to underestimate his core support.
Politics in the US and Europe has taken an anti-establishment turn. Lack of economic growth and any improvement in living standards for many people is a major issue. However, this is not just about economic inequality, but wider concerns around values and identity and distance from power – successfully wrapped up here in the EU referendum campaign under the banner of ‘taking back control’. Donald Trump connects to a similar sentiment among American voters who perceive their country changing negatively, when he talks about ‘making America great again’. On both sides of the Atlantic, appeals to national sovereignty – and perhaps also to a better past – have been viewed as mainly gaining support from working-class men. Newsflash: women can feel forgotten too. Feeling ‘safe’ under a strong leader like Trump, is one of the factors cited by women who would vote for him. Whether they actually believe in his wall to stem immigration at the border – paid for by Mexicans – the idea that a President will act directly to address cultural concerns, may be persuasive, if you think that politicians aren’t routinely listening to you.
But why would women support a candidate who is so frequently sexist? Part of Trump’s appeal is that he is seen as plain-speaking, voicing his own thoughts rather than scripted policies. Many female Republicans think their party is a ‘boys club’ with little time for women supporters, so may take the view that he is simply expressing what others think, but don’t say. Perhaps the very public rows that result from Trump’s comments are more entertaining or immediate, than dry coverage of Washington policy positions. Or maybe some voters don’t even notice that he has said things – e.g that women who are harassed at work should change jobs; or that a Muslim woman who lost her soldier son may have been told to say nothing on the platform she shared with her husband – because they get news from sources that are Trump-supporting – or may not follow news at all, and simply turn up at the rally for their man. A recent article in the Guardian found that Trump supporters variously hadn’t heard about the controversy over his comments about Ghazala Khan, or were not offended by them. In another piece, a woman from Tennessee declared that it didn’t matter much what Trump said at the moment as most people were on holiday and would vote for Donald come November.
After all, it’s still only August and a lot can change over a week – let alone a couple of months – in politics. We found that out in this country as the polls moved around in the lead-up to the EU referendum – and still the result came as a surprise to the ‘elites’ who lost on a campaign based on facts and fear. (Though how old-Etonian Boris Johnson or gold-plated billionaire Trump are not also seen as establishment men is a moot point). If other American politicians don’t want Trump to be President they need to show some emotion and positivity, not just a list of statistics. One American commentator recently summed things up with the view that ‘we’ve brought fact checkers to a culture war’. While Hillary Clinton appears to have gained from a positive convention, passion is hardly her middle name. She may yet need to find some – especially as distrust in her is a factor both for ‘soft’ Republicans, and for Sanders supporters who need some indication that their man has changed the Democrats’ agenda.
For all that Trump’s support base continues to show resilience, there are signs that he needs to do a lot more to secure victory. In light of widespread anti-establishment feeling, it may be less important that many of the Republican great and good have begun to withdraw support, and more important to concentrate on electoral arithmetic. Pollsters have homed in on the key demographics where the election will be decided. Inconveniently for Trump, a critical group is white college-educated women who are leaning Democrat. The question that really matters may actually be, why would these women vote for Donald Trump? Candidates’ daughters have been brought in to address this group, but Ivanka may not be a good enough answer. If we don’t want Trump as President, we have to hope they want to go to Chelsea.